If the construction industry listened more to residents, buildings could be repurposed holistically so that they better suited local communities, says Emily Booth
There has been a worrying backlash against ‘experts’ in these angst-ridden times. But there’s something to be said for listening – really listening – to the people who can provide specific insight you won’t find anywhere else. Those experts are the users of your buildings.
When it comes to retrofitting and refurbishing residential tower blocks, for example, there are a whole load of people who really understand how these buildings do – and don’t – work. They’re called the residents.
In Ella Jessel’s compelling piece about retrofitting the UK’s tired high rises, Danielle Gregory, resident of the Ledbury Estate, which was evacuated in August 2017 over safety concerns, warns about the risks of landlords seeing ‘the buildings and the residents who inhabit them as entirely separate’. And Matt Thornley, director of Gibson Thornley Architects, explains: ‘It is vital that people that live in the buildings are central to the refurb process … Time is needed up front with residents to work out what the issues are, what are the priorities, and to create a project-specific strategy.’
Architects need to fight ever harder on residents’ behalf so that consultation isn’t just lip service
The wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy means there is rightful scrutiny and concern in terms of retrofitting towers. ‘But,’ writes Jessel, ‘when buildings are structurally safe and able to be refurbished, the benefits of retention over demolition are clear.’ Lacaton & Vassal’s award-winning Bordeaux estate revamp is proof of this. Retaining these buildings has considerable environmental benefits; flattening them incurs heavy carbon costs.
If the construction industry listened more to residents, buildings could be repurposed holistically so that they better suited local communities. Improving environmental sustainability should not mean reducing social sustainability – for example, decanting existing residents to refurbish towers to improve building and living standards, but then selling the towers off so that it is new residents who reap the benefits.
Architects often work closely – and very well – with residents’ groups, but they need to fight ever harder on residents’ behalf so that consultation isn’t just lip service. Architecture should be concerned with people.
Perhaps there are few buildings more people-focused than the acclaimed Maggie’s Centres. Co-founded by the late, great and much-missed Charles Jencks, the exceptional centres are a masterclass of putting people, and their needs, at the heart of architecture. We can all learn from that.